Synopses & Reviews
In this hugely acclaimed author’s new novel, history comes alive before us when, in the seventeenth century, a Jesuit missionary ventures into the wilderness in search of converts—the defining moment of first contact between radically different worlds, each at once old and new in its own ways. What unfolds over the next few years is truly epic, constantly illuminating and surprising, sometimes comic, always entrancing, and ultimately all-too-human in its tragic grandeur.
Christophe, as educated as any Frenchman could be about the “sauvages” of the New World whose souls he has sworn to save, begins his true enlightenment shortly after he sets out when his native guides — terrified by even a scent of the Iroquois — abandon him to save themselves. But a Huron warrior and elder named Bird soon takes him prisoner, along with a young Iroquois girl, Snow Falls, whose family he has just killed. The Huron-Iroquois rivalry, now growing vicious, courses through this novel, and these three are its principal characters.
Christophe and Snow Falls are held captive in Bird’s massive village. Champlain’s Iron People have only lately begun trading with the Huron, who mistrust them as well as this Jesuit Crow who has now trespassed onto their land; and Snow Falls’s people, of course, have become the Hurons’ greatest enemy. Bird knows that to get rid of them both would resolve the issue, but he sees Christophe, however puzzling, as a potential envoy to those in New France, and Snow Falls as a replacement for the two daughters he’d lost to the Iroquois.
These relationships wax and wane as life comes at them relentlessly: a lacrosse match with an allied tribe, a dangerous mission to trade furs with the French for the deadly shining wood that could save the Huron nation, shocking victories in combat and devastating defeats, then a sickness the likes of which none of them has ever seen. The world of The Orenda blossoms to include such unforgettable characters as Bird’s oldest friend, Fox; his lover, Gosling, who some believe possesses magical powers; two more Jesuit Crows who arrive to help form a mission; and boys from both tribes whose hearts veer wildly from one side to the other, for one reason or another. Watching over all of them are the spirits that guide their every move.
The Orenda traces a story of blood and hope, suspicion and trust, hatred and love, that comes to a head when Jesuit and Huron join together against the stupendous wrath of the Iroquois, when everything that any of them has ever known or believed in faces nothing less than annihilation. A saga nearly four hundred years old, it is also timeless and eternal.
"Magnificent...an extraordinary work of art, savage and beautiful. It immerses us in an ancient culture and chronicles a period of catastrophic change....Boyden's profound comprehension of and compassion for all his characters invite us to acknowledge the wholeness of the life force [called] "the orenda": a unity encompassing cruelty and kindness, ignorance and understanding, inevitable sorrow and joy....The clash of civilizations assumes personal dimensions [through his] charismatic, flawed and achingly human protagonists." The Washington Post
"Profoundly spiritual [with] an epic quality [and] a gorgeous simplicity in service of this transcendent tale...a rare reading experience that stayed with me even when away from the book and long after I finished reading it." The Seattle Times
"Spellbinding....Epic in scope, exquisite in execution." Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Dignified and penetrating." Library Journal (starred review)
History reveals itself when, in the seventeenth century, a Jesuit missionary ventures into the Canadian wilderness in search of converts-the defining moment of first contact between radically different worlds. What unfolds over the next several years is truly epic, constantly illuminating and surprising, sometimes comic, always entrancing and ultimately all too human in its tragic grandeur.
Christophe has been in the New World only a year when his native guides abandon him to flee their Iroquois pursuers. A Huron warrior and elder named Bird soon takes him prisoner, along with a young Iroquois girl, Snow Falls, whose family he has just killed, and holds them captive in his massive village. Champlain's Iron People have only recently begun trading with the Huron, who mistrust them as well as this Crow who has now trespassed onto their land; and her people, of course, have become the Huron's greatest enemy. Putting both to death would resolve the issue, but Bird sees Christophe as a potential envoy to those in New France, and Snow Falls as a replacement for his two daughters who were murdered by the Iroquois. The relationships between these three are reshaped again and again as life comes at them relentlessly: a dangerous trading mission, friendly exchanges with allied tribes, shocking victories and defeats in battle, and sicknesses the likes of which no one has ever witnessed.
The Orenda traces a story of blood and hope, suspicion and trust, hatred and love, that comes to a head when Jesuit and Huron join together against the stupendous wrath of the Iroquois, when everything that any of them has ever known or believed faces nothing less than annihilation. A saga nearly four hundred years old, it is also timeless and eternal.
About the Author
Joseph Boyden’s first two novels won virtually every prize that Canada has to offer. Three Day Road (2005): the Roger’s Writers Trust Prize; the McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year; the Canadian Authors Association Book of the Year; the Libris Book of the Year; and the Amazon/Canada First Novel Award. Through Black Spruce (2008): the Scotiabank Giller Prize; the Libris Book of the Year; the Libris Author of the Year. In 2012, Boyden was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for his contributions to Canadian art and culture. The following year, The Orenda was a number-one best seller there. On the faculty of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and the Institute of American Indian Arts in Sante Fe, New Mexico, he divides his time between Northern Ontario and New Orleans, Louisiana.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of The Orenda, Joseph Boyden’s masterful and harrowing epic about the first encounters between Jesuit missionaries and the native tribes of Canada, and the tremendous cultural and social shifts that result from these interactions.
1. The Orenda is told from the alternating perspective of three narrators, but is periodically punctuated by the voice of an omniscient narrator. Discuss the significance of this voice. Who or what does this represent? Compare the passage that begins the book with the one at the end of the novel. What do these passages assert about the legacy of the Huron people? The influence of the Jesuits?
2. Discuss the Jesuit’s mission to bring Christianity to the New World. Are Christophe’s intentions pure? Would you classify his attempts at converting the Hurons as successful? What tensions arose in the community because of his efforts?
3. How does the Jesuit’s mission to bring Christianity to the New World coincide with Champlain’s vision for conquering the area? How does it conflict?
4. The relationship between Bird and Snow Falls fully evolves over the course of The Orenda. When it begins, Snow Falls’s hatred of Bird is unabashed, yet by the end of the novel she thinks of him as her father. How does this change occur? What challenges did their relationship face before Snow Falls came to terms with her role as daughter?
5. The Orenda takes place over the course of several years, showcasing Snow Falls’s development from pre-pubescence to motherhood. How is womanhood marked in the Huron culture? How do other women in the village help to guide her?
6. How does the relationship between Bird and Christophe evolve over time? Do you think the men respect each other, despite their differences?
7. On page 123, Christophe admits that he wrestles with “the grave worry that our work is being exploited by those who wish not for the souls of the sauvages but for the riches of the land.” Relate this statement to the scene in which Christophe and the Huron journey to Champlain’s settlement. How do Champlain and his people take advantage of the Huron?
8. Death is a constant theme throughout The Orenda. How does the Huron culture approach death? How do they honor their deceased relatives? Compare their attitudes toward death as opposed to that of the “charcoal.” How do their differing attitudes about spirituality affect the way they perceive the afterlife?
9. The acquisition of power is a central theme throughout The Orenda, and it manifests itself in various ways throughout the plot. How does Christophe try to obtain power over the natives? How does Bird try to maintain a position of power over his enemies? How is rape and torture used as a means of obtaining power?
10. Discuss the concept of the “oki.” How does this belief differ from the tenets of Christianity? How are these differences in beliefs reflected in both cultures’ approach to living, dying, nature, and family?
11. Though undeniably brutal, the process of torturing one’s enemies in the native cultures serves an almost ritualistic function. Discuss the various means in which captives are “caressed,” and the spiritual element to this process. Why do you think the torturers provide food and water to their captives? What is the expectation of captives in facing their fate? Explore the natives’ approach to death by torture in comparison to the Christian idea of martyrdom.
12. As the novel progresses, illnesses play an increasingly significant role, wreaking havoc on the social structure of the villages. How do illnesses affect how the community functions? Explore the role of “healers” in the Huron community.
13. What are the expected roles of males compared to females in the Huron community? In what respects do women have power? Explore the relationship between Bird and Gosling. How would you characterize their coupling?
14. Throughout the novel, Christophe oscillates between being shocked and appalled about the natives’ way of living and showing curiosity about their traditions. What does he admire about their culture? And does he participate in it? Would you say that his participation comes out of respect or out of obligation?
15. Did it shock you when Isaac murdered Snow Falls? Why do you think he chose to take others’ lives in addition to his own?
16. As a reader, what did you find most revealing about The Orenda? Did the novel challenge any of your opinions about colonization of North America? About the native populations?